Daniel was away in the Rockies on Dathun (the silent sitting retreat that Dharma Ocean runs) this New Year. So to start 2018, I stayed in Newhaven and did a 2 week solitary ‘home retreat’ in my house.
I’ve never done that before. Retreated in the place where I live. But I can highly recommend it for all sorts of reasons.
Firstly, like all retreats, it allows the mind to slow down. Its chaotic, self-entangling patterns become more starkly apparent. And that process happens even quicker because there is no airport. No travel, jetlag to negotiate before getting to the core of the practice.
However, there’s one thing that needs to be in place to make 14 days at home a retreat. That’s the schedule. I spoke to my meditation mentor about this before starting. “Let the schedule speak to you,” she said. “Once you’ve put something in place allow it to hold you but also let yourself unfold inside it.”
This was very evident for me in the first few days. Which included New Year’s Eve. When I was completely overwhelmed by very consuming anxiety about whether I was “doing it right”. I had set it up so that I had about 8 hours of scheduled practice each day. But had I made the practice sessions too long? Too short? Was I giving myself an escape hatch with that morning dog walk? Was I cheating on my practice by reading anything? Should I just read Reggie?
The first three days were just proliferating anxiety. And I noticed to my horror that I responded to that sort of chronic anxiety with another chronic behaviour: singing. Previous to the retreat starting, Daniel and I had watched all 4 seasons of ‘Transparent’. A brilliant Amazon series about a Jewish Californian family and 21st-century sexual mores. And in the last season, the director had threaded the music of Jesus Christ Superstar throughout the action.
I loved that musical as a teenager and when I listened to the album again I realised that I still have all the words by heart. Now in the silence of the retreat (no music, no internet, no podcasts, no reading), all the tunes came home to roost. I noticed with horror that EVERY TIME that I let my mind go into neutral I would find myself humming or singing or imagining the tunes and words from that musical. ALL THE TIME. It was like a weird 1970s Christian earworm that was bred out of anxiety.
Ever since I was a teenage I used to sing to myself or hum to myself. About the time that I went to see JCS with my choirmaster aged 13 I was humming and singing to myself all the time.
I now wondered if it was a form of mental smokescreen, a sort of ‘la-la-la’-ing to block out the anxiety of a closeted gay teenager trying to negotiate his hormones and a homophobic world.
Whatever the origin the habit has stuck and I wondered to myself, around the 3rd January, whether I had in fact la-la-la-ed my way through most of my adult life.
Happily, the Lloyd-Webber-RIce torture ended on day three when I cannily replaced it with a Buddhist mantra. Man-tra, Chogyam Trungpa points out means ‘mind protection’. It acts like a mental disinfectant filling the atmosphere of the mind with something positive rather than tricksy or avoidant). And with the humming veil lifted I was able to proceed with the familiar work of sitting with those patterns of thinking and emotion that the music had hidden.
I’d love to know your thoughts about retreats. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!
Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.